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Hand Pain: 8 Hand Pain Causes & When to Worry

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Last updated April 14, 2022

Hand pain quiz

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Hands are made of 19 bones, 15 joints & 3 nerves. You can experience right or left hand pain. Hand pain may occur on the top of the hand or the palm. Learn more.

8 most common causes

Broken Hand
Psoriatic Arthritis
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Ulnar Nerve Entrapment of Elbow
Hand Pain
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De Quervain's Tenosynovitis
Rheumatoid Arthritis
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Bruised hand
Illustration of a doctor beside a bedridden patient.
Repetitive strain injury of the hand

Hand pain quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your pain.

Take hand pain quiz

Hallmarks of hand pain

Did you feel discomfort or fumbled with your keyboard as you typed in our web address? What about when you just tried to pick up your drink? If so, you are likely suffering from hand pain. The hands are intricate parts of our daily life and, when they hurt, even the simplest tasks can become difficult. Without even noticing, your hands are subjected to frequent stresses and strains throughout the day.

Common accompanying symptoms of hand pain

Hand pain can range from minor discomfort to crippling and can likely be experienced with the following:

  • Burning, tingling, and/or itching
  • Stiffness
  • Swelling
  • Reduced strength
  • Bruising or discoloration
  • Misalignment of fingers

Our hands are a complex collection of 19 bones, 15 joints, three nerves, and many muscles and ligaments. Bones form the hardened infrastructure of the hand while ligaments hold the bones together and keep them in place. Working in concert, these components come together to allow the hand to perform highly skilled operations. Each one of these components is susceptible to bangs, bruises, aches, and strains.

Hand pain symptoms can be from something benign, like a small bruise, but can also be indicative of a range of disorders and diseases that can target any part of the hand.

Hand pain causes and conditions

"Hand pain" is such an all-encompassing phrase that deciphering the cause can be critical in determining the treatment. Pain can result from everyday accidents or be the product of a variety of syndromes and disorders.

Trauma-related hand pain causes

Bruises, sprains, dislocations, and breaks occur when the hand and/or fingers are struck and damaged. Repetitive actions can lead to undue stress on the joints and muscles. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a product of repetitive hand motions.

Inflammatory hand pain causes

Hand pain may occur due to inflammatory conditions such as the following.

  • Autoimmune: Several diseases cause joints to inflame. Arthritis, for example, which causes joint inflammation, is a leading cause of hand pain. Several types of arthritis, including rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, typically affect the hand, each causing pain in different joints and tendons.
  • Infections: Bacterial infections can spread through the bloodstream and affect the joints of the hand. Infectious, or septic arthritis, is an example of such a condition.

Systemic disease hand pain causes

Hand pain may occur due to systemic diseases such as the following.

  • Metabolic: The body's normal function is disrupted by metabolic diseases causing pain. Thickening of tissue and swelling of the tendons can occur from diseases such as Dupuytren's Contracture and DeQuervain's Disease.
  • Tumors: Growths, both cancerous and noncancerous, can affect all components of the hand, compressing nerves and causing pain.

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition of numbness and tingling in the hand and arm caused by compression of the mediannerve as it travels through the carpal tunnel. Causes include overuse of the wrist and hand, especially highly repetitive activities such as typing or wo..

Hand pain quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your pain.

Take hand pain quiz

At-home hand pain treatments

You may be able to relieve some of your hand pain symptoms at home with the following.

  • Immobilization: Limiting the use of the affected areas by employing splints or braces provides support to the wrist or fingers, which, in turn, helps relieve pain.
  • Rest and ice: Sometimes the simplest treatment is an ideal home remedy for minor traumatic hand pain symptoms. Ice applied for approximately 15, 20 minutes throughout the day will help reduce swelling. It is often easier said than done to rest your hands, but doing so allows time to heal.
  • Over-the-counter medications: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or help reduce inflammation and pain. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) may also help with pain.

Professional hand pain treatments

After consulting your physician, he or she may recommend the following treatments.

  • Prescription medications: Your doctor may prescribe pain medications for advanced hand pain. Corticosteroids can be taken orally or injected to control inflammation.
  • Surgery: Procedures of varying degrees may be required to repair damaged bones or ligaments. Arthroscopic or minimally invasive surgical techniques are sometimes used for arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Physical therapy: Physical therapists can develop programs to help strengthen muscles and tendons. Qualified doctors and physical therapists will recommend specific exercises to lessen the strain on joints and reduce hand pain symptoms.

Hands are critical components in both our work and personal lives. Everything from typing a report to picking up our children to preparing a meal relies on our hands. It can be debilitating when our hands hurt, but by exercising preventative measures and seeking appropriate treatment, the hand pain symptoms can often be managed.

Ulnar nerve entrapment of elbow

Ulnar nerve entrapment of elbow is also called cubital tunnel syndrome. The ulnar nerve begins at the spinal cord in the neck and runs down the arm into the hand. This very long nerve can become compressed, or entrapped, by other structures at certain points along the way. Entrapment often happens in the cubital tunnel, which is the narrow passage at the inside of the elbow.

The exact cause for entrapment may not be known. Fluid buildup and swelling inside the elbow; previous elbow fracture or dislocation; or leaning on the elbow for long periods of time can put pressure on the ulnar nerve inside the cubital tunnel.

Symptoms include numbness and tingling of the hand and fingers, sometimes leading to weakness and even muscle wasting in the hand.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, x-ray, and nerve conduction studies.

Treatment begins with wearing a supportive brace and adjusting activities to avoid further irritating the nerve. Surgery is usually not needed unless the nerve compression is causing weakness and loss of use in the hand.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: hand weakness, weakness in one hand, numbness in one hand, pain in one elbow, pain in one forearm

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the lining of the joints, causing them to become thickened and painful. It can also affect other parts of the body such as the heart, lungs, eyes, and circulatory system.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means the body's immune system turns against itself for unknown reasons.

Most at risk are women from ages 30-60. Other risk factors are family history, smoking, and obesity.

Early symptom include warm, swollen, stiff, painful joints, especially the fingers and toes; fatigue; and fever. Usually, the same joints on both sides of the body are affected.

If untreated, irreversible joint damage and deformity can occur, with other complications. Early diagnosis can allow preventive treatment to begin as soon as possible.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination; blood tests; and x-ray, CT scan, or MRI.

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but the disease can be managed to improve quality of life. Treatment includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; steroids; anti-rheumatic drugs; physical therapy; and sometimes surgery to repair the joints.

Repetitive strain injury of the hand

Repetitive strain injury of the hand is caused by consistent repetitive use.

You do not need treatment, just rest from your overuse. Wearing a brace and physical therapy might be helpful.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: hand numbness, hand weakness, hand pain from overuse

Symptoms that always occur with repetitive strain injury of the hand: hand pain from overuse

Symptoms that never occur with repetitive strain injury of the hand: hand injury, severe hand pain

Urgency: Self-treatment

Psoriatic arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis is a complication of psoriasis, which causes the skin to become thickened, red, and scaly. Arthritis may appear before or after the psoriasis appears.

Both conditions are autoimmune diseases, where the body attacks itself, and are thought to be caused by genetic and environmental factors.

Most susceptible are people from 30 to 50 years of age with a family history of the disease and who already have psoriasis.

Symptoms include the joints on one or both sides of the body becoming painful, swollen, and hot; swelling and deformity of the fingers and toes; pitted, flaking fingernails; foot pain in the heels and soles; and joint pain in the low back pain.

It is important to seek treatment, as psoriatic arthritis can permanently damage the joints, eyes, and heart.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, x-rays, and MRI. Blood tests and joint fluid tests can confirm psoriatic arthritis.

Treatment includes over-the-counter, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; anti-rheumatic medication; immunosuppressants; and steroid injections for the joints. Surgery to replace damaged joints may also be tried.

Normal hand pain

Hand pain not caused by injury or surgery that is a variation of normal.

Your hand pain is normal and unlikely to be caused by a serious illness. Your elbow pain is normal and unlikely to be caused by a serious illness. You can try over the counter pain medication like Tylenol. If the pain becomes severe, see a physician.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: hand pain

Symptoms that always occur with normal hand pain: hand pain

Urgency: Self-treatment

De quervain's tenosynovitis

De Quervain's tenosynovitis is a painful condition affecting the tendons on the thumb side of the wrist. If you have de Quervain's tenosynovitis, you will feel pain upon turning your wrist, grasping anything, or making a fist.

You should visit your primary care physician to confirm the diagnosis and discuss treatment options. You can also reduce pain and swelling with over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve).

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: hand numbness, thumb pain, hand weakness, weakness in one hand, numbness in one hand

Symptoms that always occur with de quervain's tenosynovitis: thumb pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Bruised hand

A bruise occurs when small blood vessels break and leak their contents into the soft tissue beneath the skin, which causes the purple color of the bruise.

You do not need treatment. It looks like a simple, uncomplicated bruise, which should heal on it's own in the next few days. You can put ice on it and leave your hand elevated to reduce swelling.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: hand injury, hand pain from an injury, pain in one hand, swelling of one hand, palm bruise

Symptoms that always occur with bruised hand: hand injury, hand pain from an injury

Urgency: Self-treatment

Broken hand

A fracture (break) in one or more of the hand bones. Some hand fractures require wearing a splint or a cast. Some need to be repaired with surgery.

You should seek immediate medical care at an urgent care or ER, where doctors can decide whether to get x-rays, which would recognize a fracture. Treatment would involve splinting temporarily, but if it's severe, surgery to re-align the bones.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: hand injury, hand pain from an injury

Symptoms that always occur with broken hand: hand pain from an injury, hand injury

Symptoms that never occur with broken hand: spontaneous hand pain

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Hand pain quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your pain.

Take hand pain quiz

Hand pain treatments and relief

Left untreated, persistent hand pain symptoms can lead to surgery. Conversely, minor pain may be treated at home. Pain relief may be achievable, but the underlying cause could be something that requires attention from a doctor.

When to see a doctor for hand pain

It is advisable to schedule an appointment with your doctor for any of the following hand pain symptoms:

  • Hand pain accompanied by fever and signs of infection: Especially following a puncture wound
  • Inability to move or bend fingers or wrist
  • Pain that does not improve over several weeks

Hand pain symptoms can be debilitating and greatly impact your daily life. Several steps can be taken to treat the pain, particularly if you have a known condition like arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome.

FAQs about hand pain

Is left hand pain a symptom of a heart attack?

Typically, left arm pain can be a symptom of a heart attack. It is, however, not the only sign of a heart attack, and most cases of pain in the left hand are from some other cause most commonly, trauma. Other signs of heart attack include chest pain, jaw pain, numbness, nausea, difficulty breathing, and dizziness. If you know you are at risk for a heart attack and suspect a heart attack is occuring, you should seek urgent evaluation in the nearest medical center and call 911.

Where is the pain located in carpal tunnel?

Carpal tunnel syndrome can cause numbness and burning, particularly within the distribution of the median nerve. This includes the thumb, forefinger, middle finger and thumb half of the ring finger as well as the palm. Other areas that may be affected include the wrist, forearm, and less commonly the upper arm and the shoulder. The neck is never affected.

Can diabetes cause hand pain?

Yes, diabetes can cause an increased chance of carpal tunnel syndrome. This is usually associated with the duration of diabetes. Diabetes can also cause a neuropathy, which more commonly manifests in the lower limbs that causes a painful burning sensation. Diabetes can also cause "complex regional pain syndrome," or reflex sympathetic dystrophy, which is characterized by severe pain or burning sensation.

What does rheumatoid arthritis feel like in your hands?

Usually, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) involves morning stiffness of multiple joints, including the first and second joints of the hand (MCP and PIP). It may also affect elbows, knees, shoulders, and ankles. It is most commonly associated with stiffness in the morning in conjunction with pain. Generally, the pain in the hands (which is commonly an ache or a burn) may improve with time.

Why are my hands numb?

Numbness in the hands can come from a variety of causes. Some the most common are exposure to a cold environment. Blood vessels in the hands tend to constrict and allow less blood to conserve heat in cold environments. This decrease in blood flow couples with the fact that nervous impulses travel more slowly, which leads to decreased sensation and numbness. Any disorder that affects the nerves that carry sensation too or from the hands can cause numbness. The most common of these is carpal tunnel syndrome.

Questions your doctor may ask about hand pain

  • Where exactly is your hand pain?
  • What is your body mass?
  • Do you work in food production as a chef, baker, or caterer?
  • Have someone feel for your pulse (at the wrist) on the side of your body that hurts. Now, turn your head to that side. Does the pulse go away? (This is known as the Adson's test.)

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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References

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  2. Daniels JM, Zook EG, Lynch JM. Hand and Wrist Injuries: Part I. Nonemergent Evaluation. American Family Physician. 2004;69(8):1941-1948. AAFP Link.
  3. Arthritis and Diseases That Affect the Hand and Wrist. Arthritis Foundation. Arthritis Foundation Link.
  4. Tendon Trouble in the Hands: de Quervain's Tenosynovitis and Trigger Finger. Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publishing. Published April 2010. Harvard Health Publishing Link.
  5. Barre L. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. American College of Rheumatology. Updated March 2017. Rheumatology Link.
  6. Chest Pain: A Heart Attack or Something Else? Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publishing. Updated July 16, 2018. Harvard Health Publishing Link.
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